WASHINGTON -- Moments after House Republicans unveiled the outlines of a bill on Wednesday to deal with the influx of unaccompanied minors on the nation's southern border, Democrats signaled they would oppose the measure nearly en masse.
Speaking to reporters from his office on Capitol Hill, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) should not expect many Democratic votes for his measure, which would spend about $1.5 billion to enhance the Department of Homeland Security's operation control of the border, send National Guard troops there, and change a 2008 law that gives unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries more time to make a case for asylum and other types of relief.
Hoyer noted that House Democrats' calculus could change. "Right now I would tell [Boehner] not to expect [Democratic votes]," he said. "That doesn’t mean they won’t get some."
But the minority leader framed the Republican proposal as a dead-in-the-water effort, regardless of whether it survives the House vote.
"I don’t think the Senate will take the bill," he said.
Even though nearly every lawmaker has deemed the situation at the border a crisis, chances that they will actually do something about it before the August recess are increasingly slim. A Senate Democratic leadership aide, asked about Hoyer's prognosis, said it was too early to say whether or not the chamber would consider any legislation that emerged from the House. But the Senate's focus right now, the aide said, is on producing and passing its own measure, which would provide about $2.7 billion worth of funding to deal with the border crisis and would not address other immigration issues.
The major sticking point in funding talks is the 2008 law protecting unaccompanied minors. Republicans say the law must be changed, but Democrats are wary of unraveling the protections, at least as part of an emergency supplemental bill to deal with the current crisis.
Hoyer said he had spoken with President Barack Obama's top immigration adviser, Cecilia Muñoz, earlier on Wednesday and that she and the president wanted the two issues considered separately. That was not to say that they (or Democrats in general) wouldn't support changes to the 2008 law at a later date, Hoyer added, just that they didn't want to do it hastily.
"If [Republicans] want to pursue a legislative process to consider amending the law, that is a reasonable thing to do," he said. "But what is not reasonable is to do it in this supplemental with no hearing as to the consequences, no hearing as to the underlying causes, and no hearing as to what the ramifications the legislation will have. I mean, none, zero, zip hearings."
If Democrats were to oppose the House Republican measure in nearly unanimous numbers, it could spell trouble for Boehner, since some Republicans in the House are unlikely to vote for a large funding bill, no matter the conditions. One argument is that, once the bill goes to conference with the Senate, Democrats might change the legislation in ways that Republicans can't support, then stick them with the blame if a deal isn't completed. But mostly, Republican hardliners on immigration say Obama can't be trusted to enforce the law, so giving him more money would be unwise.
"I'm not in favor ... of giving this president, who owns this problem and created this problem, who's not doing his job, any more money to not do his job with," Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) said last week.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told reporters after being briefed on the plan Wednesday that he would not support the level of funding being discussed, since he believed the minors could be deported on $300 commercial flights at the cost of between $20 million and $30 million.
"There's no way in the world I'll support spending $1 billion to $1.5 billion when we can solve the problem for as little as $20 to $30 million," Brooks said.
Republicans will likely be able to cobble up a few Democratic votes for their measure. At least two Democrats, Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), support changing the 2008 law to speed up deportations. But as Hoyer indicated, most other Democrats have been critical of the idea.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has vocally opposed changes to the law, said in a statement on Wednesday that "almost every Democrat" he has talked to agrees they should "hold the line" on laws meant to protect unaccompanied minors.
"At this point, I think it is unlikely that we will see any major weakening of the law to protect children, but I don’t know if that means that the Republicans will insist on starving the government of the money it needs to address this humanitarian crisis," he said. "I hope that is not the case, but in an election year, political opportunism reaches a fever pitch."
Many Senate Democrats are similarly hesitant about changing the 2008 law. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that Obama "has sufficient leeway under the terms of the legislation" to deal with the crisis without changing the law. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said earlier this month that he would not support changes to the law unless minors received adequate legal representation and the U.S. did more to improve the situation in their native countries.
But as with the House, not all Democratic members are opposed to changing the law. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told The Huffington Post on Wednesday that he viewed such changes as common-sense reforms.
"I don’t know why," he said, asked why his own party's leadership opposes a vote on amending the 2008 law. "The bottom line is you’ve got the criminal element in the world taking advantage of it. So if you see someone taking advantage of something we did with the best intent, you don’t just say 'OK, that’s alright.'… the way to stop it is have the same turnaround time that you have for contiguous countries, but also with compassion for these children."
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